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More money or more strings?

A homeschooling innovation brings opportunity and danger

Homeschooling mother Adria Bishop with her sons Tyler, Austin, and Wyatt Gary Fong/Genesis Photos

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As a young mom, Martha Hazelrigg rarely left the house with her four homeschooled children during school hours. When they did venture out, she coached them to tell inquisitive grocery clerks and shoppers they attended a local Christian school. It was true: Hazelrigg’s children homeschooled through that school’s independent study program. But in 1985, home education was rare, and mothers had legitimate fears that skeptics, even family members, might report them to the government.

Thirty years later, Hazelrigg’s oldest daughter, Christy Harmeson, homeschools her five children without any qualms about leaving the house on school mornings. She usually sees a scattering of families like hers at parks, stores, libraries, and hiking trails. In the San Francisco Bay area, where Harmeson lives, museums, aquariums, and even the University of California Berkeley host “homeschool days” or special classes for home-educated children. These programs sell out quickly.

Homeschooling has gone mainstream. About 2.5 million students—3 percent of all school-aged children in the United States—homeschool, according to Brian Ray, president of the National Home Education Research Institute (NHERI). It’s no longer a movement of non-establishment people on the left and evangelical believers on the right: Nationwide, only 21 percent of parents in 2012 cited religious or moral instruction as their reason for homeschooling, down from 36 percent in 2007, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

Ray says more families are choosing to homeschool for lifestyle reasons. They might have a child who is a gifted athlete or musician, or one who struggles in a traditional classroom environment. This has changed the face of homeschooling, as these new homeschoolers may not be concerned about government entanglement and may be open to ideas that steer government funding to homeschools.

Some homeschoolers in California have been using tax dollars to pay for parts of their homeschooling expenses through a charter school program. Homeschooling purists, though, worry that any government money comes with strings that threaten the independence they’ve worked so hard to achieve.

This is an issue bigger than California, however, since 43 states and the District of Columbia allow charter schools—public schools freed from many of the regulations that inhibit innovation in district schools. California is unusual in having homeschool charters, but homeschooling mom Heather Deyden-Littrell notes, “Other states are picking up on what is happening and seeing it as a viable option. It’s becoming more of a wave.”

So far, a few other states offer homeschool charters, but most offer less money than California families receive, lessening their appeal. For example, 10,000 Alaskan students are enrolled in such charters, and districts give parents up to $2,000 in educational funds. More money or more strings: More homeschoolers across the nation will need to choose.

Austin Bishop, who is enrolled in a homeschool charter program, reads a book.

Austin Bishop, who is enrolled in a homeschool charter program, reads a book. Gary Fong/Genesis Photos

ADRIA BISHOP, 36, a Sebastopol, Calif., homeschooling mother of three, last year left the Christian co-op she was a part of to join Summit Academy, a homeschool charter program that had recently opened a Sonoma County location. Enrolling was easy: She had to provide her children’s birth certificates and a recent utility bill.

“Homeschooling can be really expensive,” says Bishop: “We already forgo one income and pay for all our curriculum.” The Bishops received $2,800 per child—$8,400 for all three. With those funds, they purchased an iPad, math curriculum, an Oakland Zoo membership, and in-home guitar lessons for one son. They also paid for field trips to Alcatraz Island and Safari West.

The Bishops’ approach illustrates one of the main appeals of homeschool charters: It’s a way to get something back from all the taxes they pay toward education. California allows enrolled families to receive up to $3,200 per child, which they can spend on anything as long as it’s on their charter school’s list of approved vendors. Almost anything goes—except for faith-based curriculum and resources. But parents can still buy religious curriculum with their own dollars.

Nationwide, only 21 percent of parents in 2012 cited religious or moral instruction as their reason for homeschooling, down from 36 percent in 2007.

Those funds make a big difference for some families. Approved vendors offer books, curriculum, STEM kits with science equipment, tutoring services, educational toys, gymnastics classes, zoo and museum passes, music and horseback riding lessons—as well as less conventional educational enterprises like tickets for Disneyland. Charters require parents to return non-consumable items, like laptops, iPads, and microscopes when their children withdraw from the program.

Homeschool charters differ from virtual charters, hybrid schools, and independent study schools that assign specific curriculum and often offer in-person classes at resource centers. Most homeschool charters let parents pick their own books and coursework. Some offer a set curriculum for those who want it.

Heather Deyden-Littrell works through homeschool curriculum with her son Dylan.

Heather Deyden-Littrell works through homeschool curriculum with her son Dylan. Greg Schneider/Genesis Photos

Bishop chose her own curriculum, including some Bible-based texts, like Apologia Science: “As a Christian, I was like, ‘What are you not going to let me do?’ I was nervous about that … but it was very hands-off.” She used her own money, not the charter’s funds, to buy overtly Christian curriculum.

In return for the state funding, Adria Bishop had to submit to minor state oversight. She had to meet with a certified teacher once a month (via the internet was OK) and turn in an attendance sheet and work samples from different subjects. Since those samples cannot contain faith-based references, Bishop submitted science worksheets without Bible verses or mention of God.

Traditional homeschoolers worry about the effect of homeschool charters on their own freedom to educate their children.

PUSHBACK TO THE HOMESCHOOL CHARTERS has come from at least two directions: government and more traditional homeschools.

In May, San Diego authorities accused an Australian man and his partner of using their company, A3 Education, to buy real estate and fund other ventures: A3 ran both homeschool charters and traditional ones. Authorities indicted 11 people for a “charter scam” they alleged cost the state more than $50 million in education funds. Following the charges, the state froze the assets of all A3 charters, leaving many teachers, parents, and homeschool vendors in the lurch. Adria Bishop was one of them.

Eight-year-old Ellie Littrell with homeschooling books

Eight-year-old Ellie Littrell with homeschooling books Greg Schneider/Genesis Photos

A3 Education’s alleged corruption came at a time when California lawmakers were already attempting to cap charter growth. California has more charter students than any other state—660,000, or 11 percent of the state’s 6 million K-12 students.

Because charters aren’t required to hire unionized teachers, California’s powerful teachers unions want to limit them. Controversy over charters spawned teacher strikes earlier this year in Oakland, Los Angeles, and elsewhere. Gov. Gavin Newsom recently appointed a task force to evaluate charter schools’ effect on public schools, and the state Legislature is advancing bills that would limit new charters from opening.

Orange County mother of three Windi Eklund is part of a homeschool charter. She worries that the state might limit her options. She says private homeschool families have been mostly silent about that prospect. “Very few have shown up to support us in this fight,” Eklund said: “There’s this stigma that we’re not really homeschooling.”

Traditional homeschoolers worry about the effect of homeschool charters on their own freedom to educate their children. Christy Harmeson and her husband homeschool privately through a local Christian co-op. In recent years, several of her friends have left the co-op to join homeschool charters springing up in Northern California. She admits the money—nearly $12,000 extra for their one-income family—does sound appealing. But, Harmeson says, “It’s hard not to think the more we take state money, the more the government will say, ‘This is how you have to homeschool’ … and that we are voluntarily etching away our freedom.”

California already requires parents of the state’s 270,000 privately homeschooled children to file an affidavit that registers their home address as a private school. But the state’s homeschool establishment has fought other regulations.

Last year, after authorities accused David and Louise Turpin of Perris, Calif., of torturing, abusing, and neglecting their 13 homeschooled children, state lawmakers proposed two bills to provide more government oversight of home-schooling families. One mandated a yearly fire marshal home inspection and another established a government committee to oversee homeschooling and set teacher qualification standards.

Both bills died. Nathan Pierce, director of operations and legislative liaison for the Sacramento-based Family Protection Ministries (FPM), credits the thousands of homeschooling families who opposed the bills. Pierce said one state legislator asked him, “Can you tell your people to stop calling me?”

In FPM’s nearly 35 years of alerting homeschooling families of potentially restrictive state bills, last year’s battle was its biggest. Homeschooling families tend to stay in the background of California’s liberal politics, but Pierce said, “My experience has been that when [they feel] threatened, people … come out of the woodwork to defend their freedom.”

Though both private and charter homeschoolers opposed the legislation that grew out of the Turpin case, they are often on opposing sides. The Virginia-based Home School Legal Defense Association (HSLDA) has spent more than three decades fighting to keep the government out of homeschooling. President Mike Smith warns against taking government dollars for homeschooling: “When you get involved with the state and take state funding, then the state controls education.”

HSLDA sees governmental oversight as antithetical to the point of homeschooling. “Our view is that children and parents do better without it,” Smith said. That belief puts HSLDA and its network of private homeschooling families at odds with homeschool charters taking public funds. When asked about homeschool charters, Nathan Pierce of Family Protection Ministries said his group does not fight “public school battles.”

Homeschooler Heather Deyden-Littrell thinks he’s wrong. She says if lawmakers restrict charters, they will come after private home education next: “It’s strange that there is this line between private and charter homeschoolers. We all need to band together.”

Mary Jackson

Mary is a book reviewer and senior writer for WORLD. She is a World Journalism Institute and Greenville University graduate who previously worked for the Lansing (Mich.) State Journal. Mary resides with her family in the San Francisco Bay area.



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